Recently on the Wizards of the Coast site, an article by Kolja Raven Liquette touches on the topic of “dead levels” – character levels at which no specific class ability is gained. The barbarian for example has something at every level, even if it’s as limited as +1 to saves versus traps, whereas the fighter generally only gains one ability at every other level. Gamers are divided as to whether these empty levels are by wholly worthless, or if the increase to hit points, base attack, saves and base attack are still worth it.
Kolja’s article provides filler abilities for the dead levels. Coincidentally I had discussed this before (although not on this site), offering to round the fighter out with a minor but useful ability at the odd levels when he doesn’t gain a feat. Unfortunately, I fear that the Wizards article may have provided too little in the way of benefits to allay the qualms of the powerplayers who had the biggest problem with dead levels in the first place. The other side of Kolja’s dilemma is that if the benefits are too good, DMs everywhere will be swamped with requests to hand out free class abilities. Rewriting something so central as the core classes is really not something we can expect from Wizards of the Coast any time soon.
To be honest—and it’s perhaps unfair to Mr. Liquette since writing game-official rules for Wizards has certain constraints that a blogger isn’t limited by—were I writing this article, I would have somewhat different goals. Kolja’s article provides minor abilities which are mostly flavourful in nature, other than the rogue minor ability which corrects a perceived power deficiency in the class. Rather, I would have taken the route of providing abilities which were distinctly useful, but limited in scope. Consider the barbarian’s bonus to save versus traps; it’s as high as +6 at level 18, but as a balancing factor this bonus applies only to dodging traps. It’s wholly useless in a combat situation, does nothing for dangerous terrain and doesn’t protect against magical or poisoned traps, yet it’s still quite worthy because now and again it does work, much to the player’s pleasure.
On a quick skim, here’s what I might have given to each class to allay the “dead level” mob. Barbarian needs no bonus, in my opinion it’s the best designed class in the entire game. The bard gains some bonus or ability that he can know relevant information about enemies in-combat, sort of blue-mage style. The cleric gains defensive variants depending on deity, alignment, domains or church affiliation. The druid I think is fine since it gains ninth level spells on its dead 17th, but I might bring back 2ed hibernation or plane shifting. The fighter abilities in the article I like, but I might have given him weapon proficiencies or let his Weapon Focus style feats apply to another weapon for free (although in practice fighters really only use one weapon, so an improvement to what 2ed called Bend Bars/Lift Gates does make sense).
The monk’s got nothing empty (although it’s weaker as a combat class because of it), and I’d have to think a while for what I’d give the paladin. The ranger I’m not usually a fan of but on a quick look I think Kolja has it right. The rogue I might have uninventively filled in with the two empty levels with “Special Ability”; at any rate I don’t think it’s realistic for a rogue to work just a well without any tools, and I find myself wondering if it’s okay to give the rogue Hide in Plain Sight at 14th or 20th. On a hunch I’d throw in “take 10 on Use Magic Device” at 14th and Hide in Plain at 20th, but that’s tentative. Finally, the sorcerer and wizard; to be honest, both get along pretty well empty-levelling since they have the best spells and always gain new ones upon levelling up. The sorcerer, of course, is a shade weak overall and I find myself considering route of minor magical abilities (distinct from learned spells since the sorcerer is “naturally” magical in certain, perhaps unique ways), while for the wizard I’d turn to none other than the Arcana Evolved style magister’s staff as an alternative to a familiar.
Wizards need their staffs.